Alysa Cisneros

alysa cisneros sunnyvale

When Alysa Cisneros won election to the Sunnyvale City Council in November 2020, at age 33, she became the first openly queer woman to serve on a city council in Santa Clara County since Jamie McLeod sat on the City of Santa Clara council from 2004 -2012. When her council colleagues voted for her as vice-mayor in 2022, she became the first queer woman in the county to ever hold that title.

Besides creating a career in politics, Cisneros is a role model for the LGBTQ+ community and students at her alma mater, De Anza College. She credits the school with instilling her with the confidence to pursue her passion.

Things might have gone differently. Cisneros had a baby girl at age 19, and is a prior recipient of food stamps, but her determination and resiliency led to her success.

Cisneros was raised in Sunnyvale. Her mother was a medical assistant at O’Connor Hospital and her father worked as a janitor and machine shop worker at Hewlett Packard. Her father rose through the ranks during his 30 years with the company, eventually becoming a global manager. With her parent’s combined incomes, Cisneros’ family was able to rent a home in the Bay Area, something that feels out of reach for many today.

Cisneros said affordable housing is desperately needed as people are commuting 2 1/2 hours a day, each way from areas like the Central Valley where they can own a home. In addition to creating affordable housing, her policy goals include completing the redevelopment of downtown Sunnyvale, improving public transportation, and supporting small businesses.

A reckoning

In 2006, Cisneros’ life changed with the birth of her daughter and the realization that working class people have the odds stacked against them. Reading “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich brought home to her how difficult the lives are of working-class people, who even while holding several minimum wage jobs, struggle to get ahead. This revelation galvanized her to reassess the challenges she faced and work to make a difference for others.

“It occurred to me that the reasons why my life was hard was not because of me, or anything that I’m doing wrong,” she said, “but because of how society is structured to benefit some people. It’s a lot easier to achieve the same things based on privilege.”

Experiencing severe ADHD lends her a unique lens and makes her extremely focused on certain issues. She’s learned to appreciate it, turning a difficulty into an asset. Being a young, bisexual city councilmember also sets her apart.

Cisneros believes diverse representation across demographics is essential for ensuring policies are insightful and effective. For example, being a renter brings a deeper understanding of the value of rent control.

“Ideally, you’d want to have all of those voices coming from those different experiences,” she said. “The council’s the most diverse it’s ever been, and it enriches us because we have different career backgrounds, different ages, and different life experiences.”

But it wasn’t always this way. When Cisneros joined the Sunnyvale City Council, she was the only woman of color and the only queer person until Richard Mehlinger, a bisexual man, joined the council in 2023.

Cisneros made it her personal mission to make access, equity, and inclusion part of city policy but was met with resistance from other councilmembers, she said.

In addition, she championed a human relations commission, made up of residents, which addresses equity.

“It was a big ask to get it,” she said, adding she won the other councilmembers over by repeatedly speaking about its importance and gaining their empathy.

While campaigning for office, Cisneros faced disagreement with one of her consultants about revealing she’s bisexual. He told her lesbians who didn’t consider it a thing would be intolerant and advised her not to mention it.

“I was not expecting it,” she said, “I just hadn’t come across any pushback on my identity. That was not an acceptable answer to me.”

Otherwise, her sexuality came up in positive ways, she said, with people saying she’d increase that representation as an openly queer person serving on the city council.

“That was not always a safe thing to do,” she said. “I feel very lucky to live in a time where it was.”

In fact, running against two opponents, Cisneros captured almost 54% of the votes. She said the city moving to district elections encouraged her to run, as citywide elections can cost $60,000 to $100,000.

School years

Although Cisneros struggled academically in high school because of not being diagnosed with ADHD, she resolved to attend college and pursue a career in politics. She worked in politics following high school, advocating for tenants’ rights and increasing the minimum wage. Without a college degree and a baby, she felt limited and decided to enroll at De Anza College, following in her father’s footsteps. It helped that professors and staff were supportive. Empowered by
knowledge and opportunities, she excelled in political science and government.

Cisneros credits a De Anza professor with encouraging her to pursue graduate school. The professor wrote in one of her papers, “Have you considered going to grad school? I think that you’d do really well.” Cisneros hadn’t even considered the possibility until that moment. As a person of color, she also knew she needed twice as much credibility to be hired for a job as someone who was white or male, she said.

“So, I went for it,” she said. “I might not have if my professor hadn’t done that. De Anza offers those experiences and accessibility to college to people who would not have it otherwise.”

Cisneros transferred to Mills College, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in political, legal, and economic analysis and received a master’s degree in public policy. Following college, she worked as a community organizer and public policy analyst. She is proud of helping to pass state legislation that allowed foster youth and homeless students to access financial aid until they were 26 years old.

De Anza reached out to Cisneros following college to offer her a job teaching American Government and Grassroots Democracy. She was also invited to be the keynote speaker at the school’s Lavender Graduation ceremony honoring the resilience and the accomplishments of its LGBTQ+ graduates.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to give some of what I received to students,” she said, “and hopefully propel them forward.”

Richard Mehlinger

richard mehlinger profile

Only a handful of cities in the Bay Area have managed to elect one LGBTQ+ representative to their city councils. Even fewer cities have elected two. Sunnyvale joined the first group in 2019 when openly bisexual Alysa Cisneros won election. But it reached the second group when openly bisexual Richard Mehlinger won his race in 2022, thereby giving the seven-member council two queer councilmembers.

Richard moved to Sunnyvale in 2011 for a software engineering job. Born in Long Beach, he did his undergraduate studies at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, double majoring in computer science and history. For his graduate work, he received his Master’s in European History at U.C. Riverside. “History has always been a passion of mine. It really informs the way I think about the world,” he said.

His first interaction with the local government occurred in 2014. A bridge he drove over each day on his commute to Moffett Park ran along a hillside that was riddled with trash. Wanting to get the debris removed, he emailed Sunnyvale Councilmember Jim Griffith, who then coordinated with Caltrans to get the area cleaned up. Seeing the city take action first-hand inspired him. “I just emailed my council member, and he actually answered my question and made a meaningful effort to fix the problem.”

But he wasn’t yet inspired to get involved with city government.

Fast forward to election night 2016, which he describes as one of the worst nights of his life. Following Hilary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s victory, Richard took a few sick days off from work to contemplate what role he could play in making a difference. He knew sitting around and watching was no longer an option for him. “I thought, there is nothing meaningful I can do at the federal or state level,” he surmised. “But I could actually get some things done at the local level.”

He aimed to tackle Silicon Valley’s top hot-button issue: the cost of living. He realized Trump’s election meant large numbers of queer individuals and people of color would be moving to California seeking a safer place to live. “We’ve got all these great civil rights protections, but who can afford to live here? Civil rights protections shouldn’t be a luxury.”

He noted the city’s empty promises of inclusion in an online op-ed he wrote. “You see signs like ‘Immigrants welcome here,’ ‘Love is love,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ etc. Yes, everyone is welcome if they have enough money. But if we’re actually serious about inclusion and civil rights, then we have to build enough affordable housing for working people to be able to live here.”

Then, a bicycle accident in May 2017 further prompted him to get involved with the city. On his commute home from work, he hit a crack in the pavement and was launched over the handlebars, breaking his arm in the fall. It got him thinking about how the smallest details, like safe biking infrastructure, make an enormous difference.

That year, Richard joined Livable Sunnyvale, a spinoff of the Sunnyvale Democratic Club. The group advocates for housing, green transportation, and sustainability. He was elected to the board in 2018. At that same time, he also joined the Charter Review Commission. In 2019, he decided to apply to Sunnyvale’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. “Commissions are the training wheels and the pipeline for city council candidates,” he said. “It’s a way for people to get experience in city government.”

In late 2019, he met Alysa Cisneros at a BAYMEC brunch, and they became friends. Alysa run for and won a seat on the Sunnyvale City Council in 2020, giving Richard the opportunity to gain campaign experience as her assistant campaign manager. Then and only then did he decide he was ready for a campaign of his own. By that time, Sunnyvale had switched over to district elections, making the campaign more manageable.

Richard spent all of 2021 preparing to run for council by talking to the neighborhood leaders and current and former elected officials. But the conversation that impacted him most was the one he had with his 97-year-old grandmother shortly before she died. “One of the last conversations I had with her will remain with me forever. She told me to ‘keep on politickin’.’ That was really meaningful. She was a remarkable woman.”

By the time he launched his campaign on his 35th birthday in 2022, he had an endorsement list “as long as his arm.” The five years he spent building relationships, learning how the city works, and understanding the issues in his district had paid off. It also turned out that he was a prolific fundraiser. He raised a total of $40,000, all without accepting any corporate or developer contributions. From family and friends alone, he raised $25,000 Organized labor came through in a big way, contributing around $12,000.

In his campaign, Richard focused on addressing the needs of the residents in his district, running on pro-housing and traffic safety, which he calls “basic quality of life issues.”

mehlinger campaign ad
“Richard for Sunnyvale” Campaign Mailer

Richard’s identity as a proud bisexual man was a “non-issue” in his campaign. He received support from organizations like BAYMEC and The Victory Fund that work to elect queer people to office. Though it seemed irrelevant to the issues he ran on, he made a point of speaking about being bisexual for the sake of visibility. “There’s erasure, especially for men. Hell, The New York Times ran an article about ten years ago, asking ‘Do bi men exist?’ I was just like, ‘Well, I’m right here!’”

There was only one other candidate in the race, who turned out not to run much of a campaign. Richard won handily, with 71% of the vote.

In his swearing-in speech, Richard noted the historic nature of his victory: “Tonight I stand here as the second openly queer Sunnyvale City Councilmember ever, part of the most diverse council in terms of background, geography, ethnicity, religion, in our city’s history. That diversity is a strength because it allows us to see and address issues from many different angles. The switch to districts, drawn with extensive community input and confirmed overwhelmingly by the voters, made this possible.”

“Serving on the city council is a tremendous honor, and it’s actually fun,” he said. “I am having the time of my life. We have an excellent council. I have great colleagues. We have a great city staff. And even when we disagree, it’s respectful. I think we’re doing some really cool stuff.”

Richard wants to encourage other people to run for local office. “It can be a tremendously rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to help shape your community for the better, which is a wonderful thing. I’m really grateful to be here,” he concluded.

Richard Mehlinger’s speech at 2023 Sunnyvale Pride